SOCHI, Russia (AP) — For women's hockey, the game between the United States and Canada is the highlight of the Olympics and it usually comes with the gold medal at stake.
This year, the wait will be a little shorter.
Because of a change in the format designed to cut down on opening-round blowouts, the U.S. and Canada will meet in the preliminary round for the first time since the sport joined the Winter Games in 1998. The teams could ultimately play again in the gold medal game on Feb. 20, but they'll have a more difficult road to get there.
"It's going to be tough, but you don't want easy games to make it far," American defenseman Megan Bozek said. "It's the hard that makes it great."
Since women's hockey became an Olympic sport, it has been dominated by the North American rivalry that has played out in every world championship title game and all but one Olympic final. But the days or weeks leading up to the gold medal games have been characterized by laughable mismatches, often with double-digit victories by the top-tier teams against opponents who show they don't belong on the same ice.
The spate of round-robin blowouts led IOC President Jacques Rogge to warn the sport's governing body after Vancouver, "We cannot continue without improvement."
So changes were made.
Instead of two evenly matched groups, the eight countries competing in Sochi were split up so that the top four teams in the world rankings will be in one group and the next four in another. After the round robin, the top two teams in Group A receive a bye into the semifinals; the next two go into the quarterfinals to play the top two teams in Group B.
The bottom two teams in Group B have no chance to medal and play for spots 5-8.
"We of course know that progress takes time, and that the U.S. and Canada have top-quality programs, but we certainly hope to see many competitive games in Sochi," said Adam Steiss, a spokesman for the International Ice Hockey Federation.
The format was tested out in the last two world championships, and the international governing body liked the results. While at the Vancouver Olympics almost half of the games — nine of 20 — had a five-goal difference or more, there were five blowouts in 21 games at the 2012 worlds and four in '13.
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